It took until the wee hours of the night on Thursday, but the New York State Senate, with little fanfare, finally got around to confirming Tom Prendergast as the MTA CEO and Chairman. Prendergast, the former president of New York City Transit, had been nominated to the post by Gov. Cuomo in mid-April, and after the governor failed to make a nomination for over three months after Joe Lhota left to run for mayor, the Senate dragged its heels for nearly as long. But what’s done is done, and Prendergast inherits the job, problems and all.
Following Thursday’s vote, Gov. Cuomo issued a statement praising his new MTA head, the sixth in as many years. “Tom Prendergast has a proven track record of leadership and transportation expertise, especially when it comes to the managing the vast transportation network of the MTA,” Cuomo said. “As Interim Executive Director, Tom was vital to the recovery of the MTA after Superstorm Sandy and he will continue to play a crucial role in making the MTA more modern, efficient and storm ready. I look forward to Tom’s continued success in running the nation’s largest transportation system.”
So what’s on tap for the Brewster resident who comes to New York by way of a childhood in Chicago and experience in Vancouver as well as stints at Transit and the LIRR? With mayoral candidates clamoring for city control of the MTA and more and more and more bus service, it’s easy to forget that the MTA is a state agency with long-term goals and projects well under way. With that in mind, Prendergast has to confront a series of planning obstacles up front. Let’s run ’em down.
1. Rebuilding from Sandy and reinforcing for the next storm
While Lhota received a lot of credit for the MTA’s success in restoring service after Sandy, Prendergast probably deserves even more. He headed transit during Irene and was instrumental in implementing a storm-preparedness plan. That most of the subways were up and running a week after the storm surge swept through was an impressive feat, but the hard work is yet to come.
We’re two weeks into hurricane season and the MTA is no better prepared to harden the system now than they were in late October, and Prendergast will, for better or worse, have to focus on preventative measures. With the city’s new storm maps out, most of the Lower Manhattan subway stations are well within the flood zones, and the tunnels remain very vulnerable. Furthermore, with a 14-month R train shutdown on tap for August, L train riders have been subjected to mechanical problems due to the storm, and it’s only getting worse before it gets better. Prendergast must put forward a plan that shows how we can recovery and avoid another hurricane-related subway catastrophe. (And what’s happening with the new South Ferry station anyway?)
2. Labor relations
It’s been 17 months and counting since the TWU’s contract expired, and the union’s position has gained little traction in the press. They waited out Walder, never had a chance for serious negotiations with Lhota and now have to face Prendergast across the table. The MTA’s long-term budget forecast rests on the assumption of a net-zero labor increase, and achieving that goal will either involve stagnant wages, benefits givebacks or labor roll reductions. The riding public cannot afford another massive wage increase for unionized members just as we can’t afford to have subways enter stations at 10 miles per hour. At some point, the contract has been negotiated and finalized, and now that’s on Prendergast’s plate.
3. The future capital program
A few years ago, Jay Walder explained how the next five-year capital plan, set to cover 2015-2019, would focus not on megaprojects but rather on behind-the-scenes upgrades. Modernizing the signal system and installing CBTC is still on the table, but it would be a shame to see the era of megaprojects dry up. On Prendergast’s watch, the MTA will open the Fulton St. Transit Center, the 7 line extension and Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway. The next five-year plan should include at least a new phase of the Second Ave. line, the controversial Penn Station Access project and something more exciting than Select Bus Service Routes. On a similar note, Prendergast should work to constrain capital costs as well. Look for developments on this plan to surface within the next eight to 12 months.
4. Please swipe again
For nearly a decade, the MTA has engaged in pilot program after pilot program as it works to replace the Metrocard. The 20-year-old swipe system will soon become cost-prohibitive to maintain, but the MTA is no closer to identifying the next-generation fare payment system now than they were in 2006 when the first touch-and-go trial started. An effort to develop a system focused around contactless credit cards faltered as banks were slow to adopt the technology, and the MTA is again engaged in an internal analysis of the best steps forward. With steady leadership atop the MTA, hopefully this key project can move forward at a more rapid clip.
5. Playing politics, nicely
It nearly goes without saying that the MTA Chair must play the Albany game properly, and that’s certainly true in Prendergast’s case. State Senators are bemoaning the existence of bus lanes and flashing blue lights while still clamoring for an end to the payroll tax and whining about Metro-North’s eventual encroachment into Penn Station. It’s hard to believe that elected officials are such barriers to progress in a city built atop its transit network, but that’s where we are in 2013. As with his predecessors, Prendergast will have to learn to navigate and exploit that system on his own as Gov. Cuomo has turned out to be a passive supporter, rather than a vocal champion, of transit in the New York City region.